The philosopher George Santayana famously cautioned: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Here’s a corollary: Those who do not read history are doomed to ask the same question again and again.
And so it is that in our books, magazines and journals, we are again debating the question, “Is America in decline?”
The answer, as outlined below, remains what it has always been: “That depends on us.” For over two centuries, the United States has pursued the economic, military and diplomatic policies that brought it to the apex of global power after World War II and kept it there. We retain the capacity to remain atop the world’s pecking order, but we must pursue the right policies today to keep us there.
It’s a lesson that, apparently, every generation needs to re-learn. Predictions of America’s decline date all the way back to its founding, when critics raised doubts that the “American experiment” would even survive.
Declinism gathered momentum in more recent decades, however. Experts predicted at multiple points in the decades after World War II that we had lost, or would lose, the Cold War. Now, we hear a similar prediction – that the 21st Century will belong not to America but to others (e.g., China).
Signaling the most recent round of declinist debate, The American Interest (a foreign policy journal) is running several articles on the subject in its November/December issue, while The Weekly Standard (the conservative magazine) explores the issue this week with a provocative cover piece.
The latest argument from the declinists goes like this: A series of events have conspired to dent the nation’s armor and put us on a path toward long-term retreat – our military troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan; our loss of moral standing over unilateralism, Iraq, and torture; the global economic crisis that raised doubts about U.S.-led free market capitalism; and China’s swift economic and military rise.
But, as the articles cited above make clear, history follows no pre-determined path. It is largely the product of human behavior, of choices made and roads taken. America can follow the missteps of yesterday with smart policies today.
“The United States can still be the most prominent – although not dominant – of the great powers, and it can still offer the most attractive way of life,” the theorist James Kurth writes in The American Interest. “But to do this, America will have to become more American than it has been in recent years.”
Or, as columnist Charles Krauthammer, who wrote The Weekly Standard’s piece, put it, “decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.”
To retain our prominence, the United States must adopt the right economic, military, and diplomatic policies:
Economic: A strong economy is a prerequisite for power. It generates both the overall national wealth as well as the governmental revenues with which the nation can project military and diplomatic strength.
While promoting a strong economy with the dynamism to create the high-paying jobs of the future, and the skilled workforce to fill them, the nation must greatly reduce its huge projected budget deficits.
For one thing, these deficits would force Washington to pay much more for interest on the debt, which would quickly squeeze all public programs (military and non-military). For another, they could cause an economic crisis, such as a broad-scale loss of confidence in the dollar, which could generate soaring inflation or interest rates and give momentum to current efforts to replace the dollar as the world currency.
Military: Just as America reigned supreme in conventional, nuclear and information-age warfare over the last 70 years, it now must master the demands of defeating insurgencies of the kind faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Key to our military’s success in Iraq was the dirty little secret that it re-discovered: As in the two world wars, in Korea and Vietnam, and in the first Gulf War, America often relies as much on the forces of others as on its own. In Iraq, it was the Sunni tribes of the “Anbar Awakening” that helped turn defeat into victory. Future successes against insurgencies will rely at least partly on such collaboration.
Diplomatic: After the global tensions of the Bush years, the world sought another style of U.S. leadership. But President Obama has learned that a different approach does not automatically produce different results.
The United States must learn how to lead a world in which some nations or regions are growing more important (China and India), and others perhaps less so (Europe). Threats to peace and stability are increasingly transnational (terrorism, disease, and global warming), but global cooperation to address them is often lacking.
Clearly, on the economic, military and diplomatic fronts, we have our work cut out for ourselves. Having said that, our fate remains where it’s always been – in our hands. What Thomas Paine said more than two centuries ago still rings true: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”